Monday, March 25, 2013

Vocations and the New Evangelisation

Some months ago I was invited to the United States to give a talk on the New Evangelisation. It is a concept that still elicits quizzical looks in some quarters. How can there be a new Evangelisation if there is no new Gospel? The Gospel is one and the same and so, surely, its proclamation cannot change in any substantial way. With such objections in mind, I found a very helpful explanation in a recent collection of essays by Walter Kasper (unfortunately not yet available in English). Kasper develops some of the distinctions expressed by Benedict XVI in Porta Fidei, the document announcing the year of faith. Here the Pope speaks of three forms of evangelisation. There is the traditional mission ad gentes, the initial proclamation of the Gospel to pagan peoples. This missionary activity of the Church is as important and as licit today as it has ever been. Secondly, there is the need to evangelise the members of the Church herself. The Pope mentions how in the past parish retreats and missions were privileged moments for the faith to be awakened in individuals through a personal encounter with Christ. Finally there is a situation which is new in the developed world which is the reality of cultures which were once Christian but now have little more than residual vestiges. How do you proclaim Christ to a people who think they already know what you are going say and therefore either won't listen or interpret your words according to their own categories? This is the field proper to the New Evangelisation. It is not the content that is new but rather the cultural context and consequently the methods of engagement.

The New Evangelisation is important when we consider the question of vocations. All over the world there has been an increase in vocations attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit through those groups and movements that are agents of the New Evangelisation. I heard while in the United States that a third of seminarians are in some way the fruit of the apostolic endeavours of just two groups evangelising young people. To use the analogy of fishing, we could say that the traditional fishing grounds for vocations were the family, the parish and the school. Although not exhausted, the stocks in these grounds are very much diminished. Today many of the vocations in our seminaries and religious orders have resulted from a call from God that began in the call to faith presented to them by one of those groups associated with the New Evangelisation.

When we speak of a “new evangelization” we do not mean that there is some new content to the Gospel message. What is new isn’t the message proclaimed but the situation of those receiving that message. The mission ad gentes has an inherent advantage in that there is a freshness to the proclamation and an openness on the part of the recipient. The New Evangelisation has to come to terms with the fact that it is proclaiming the Gospel to a generation who are familiar with some of the concepts and have grown cynical about its content. It is a cynicism born not just of scandal within the Church but also of a more generalized cultural ennui proper to a generation who have been the recipients of promises that have never delivered. 

John Bosco by day
If it is true, and it certainly seems likely to be the case, that in the foreseeable future, a substantial proportion of our vocations will be the fruit of the New Evangelisation there will be specific consequences, or challenges, for the life of the Church. As the saying goes, "if we do what we've always done we will get what we've always got". This is the first challenge. If we want to see more vocations there is a need for the Church to come to terms with the New Evangelisation by reaching out an supporting those groups who are already engaged in it. I am not advocating a sort of ecclesial nationalisation of the new movements. Their very strength comes from their youthfulness and ability to think outside the usual "box" of diocesan structures. But in many cases they will benefit from the encouragement, support and wisdom that the Church can offer them. I wonder how often we listen to the new Movements, trying to understand them and to see where we can offer them support? I imagine that any bishop fortunate enough to have a contemplative community in his diocese would regard it a tragedy were they to close. Do we have a similar desire to welcome evangelising groups into our dioceses, such as NET Ministries from the USA? So the first challenge is to overcome institutional stasis and allow ourselves to be challenged.

A second, but not unrelated challenge, comes from the fact that we are talking of a generation that has grown up in a post-Christian cultural context. The 1960's and 1970's were years of stripping away and challenging authority. They were marked by a naive activism that believed progress would build the brave new world. The current generation looks instead for certainty, is cynical about the future and holds to forms and expressions of the past as a sign of continuity. The rebels of a former age now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being themselves rebelled against by a generation that seems not to understand or show any sympathy for their struggle for 'liberation'. The second challenge is therefore directed at individuals within the Church. Are we to remain time-locked in the struggles of the past and so risk being irrelevant to the present? Or are we willing to let go of the past and its battles in order to be open to the aspirations and needs of the present?

John Travolta by night
The third challenge follows on from the second. Men and women who come to faith through the New Evangelisation remain people who have grown up within a particular social, family and cultural context. Their formation needs are, therefore, very specific. The men and women responding to a vocation today are more likely to have the personal history of Augustine of Hippo than Teresa of Avila. How can we be sure that the formation we offer meets the needs of this new generation unless we are willing to discern what those needs are? It is also worth recalling that we need to be aware of "false friends" - what Rome means by "human formation" is not the same as what a secular therapist understands when he or she hears those words. The challenge is to get to know those in formation by investing time in them which is not the same as observing them from afar or through the reports of others, and responding to their needs in ways that are explicitly Christian. If we are to avoid the phenomenon of men in formation who are John Bosco by day and John Travolta by night we will need to be on our guard against offering a therapeutic model of human formation based on a pagan (and therefore flawed) anthropology. I have to say that I was impressed to see in the United States an excellent programme of human formation rooted in the fundamental truth that we are sons and daughters of God. If that is not the starting point something has gone wrong.

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